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EUROPEAN UNION

Rajoy backs ‘multi-speed’ Europe idea at EU ‘Big Four’ meeting

The heads of continental Europe's biggest economies, in a joint view of the European Union's future at a troubled time, on Monday endorsed the idea of a "multi-speed" EU in which some members could deepen their integration faster than others.

Rajoy backs 'multi-speed' Europe idea at EU 'Big Four' meeting
Rajoy met with Merkell, Holland ad Gentiloni at Versailles. Photo: AFP

Their meeting in the gilded splendour of the Palace of Versailles was spurred by calls to strengthen the EU in the face of Britain's exit from the bloc, eurosceptic populism and fears over US President Donald Trump's strategy for Europe.

“Unity does not equal uniformity,” French President Francois Hollande told reporters ahead of a working dinner with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Italy's premier Paolo Gentiloni.

“For this reason I support new forms of cooperation,” he said at a joint press conference with the other leaders.   

“#Spain generates confidence. We'll find solutions together with our European partners to overcome the challenges that Europe has ahead” – Mariano Rajoy.

Some EU member states could “go more quickly” and “further in areas such as defence and the eurozone, by deepening the economic and monetary union, and by harmonising fiscal and social policy,” Hollande said.   

Other EU members could choose to opt out of measures intended to deepen integration, he added.

Rajoy said his country was ready to go further with EU integration. “Our countries must make choices,” he said. “Because without choices, we will undermine the EU.”

France and Germany, which are often described as the European Union's “engine”, had already backed the idea of a multi-speed Europe.  

Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg had also signed on to the idea, as they worriedly eye the rise of anti-European parties.

'Courage'

Merkel urged Europeans to “have the courage to accept that some countries can advance more rapidly than others”, and that that should not stop members on a slower integration footing from catching up.

“We must be able to move forward,” she said.    

Gentiloni meanwhile urged “a more integrated European Union”, albeit with “different levels of integration”.

No concrete project was announced after the meeting in Versailles. There had been speculation the leaders would shy away from making specific proposals to avoid antagonising member states who resist the multiple-speed concept, including many in eastern Europe.

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has laid out five possible scenarios for the EU after Britain leaves. They include reducing the EU to just a single market, returning some powers to member countries and creating a “multi-speed” Europe.

“In #Versailles. Constructive spirit, loyal collaboration and full trust in a future of opportunities for the EU” – Mariano Rajoy.

EU leaders are now considering Juncker's options ahead of a summit in Rome on March 25th marking the bloc's 60th anniversary, where they will make their own declarations about the way forward after Britain's expected departure in 2019.

That date, combined with the rise of populist and nationalist figures, has triggered a wave of angst about Europe's future.    

The EU faces legislative elections in The Netherlands this month, followed by presidential elections in France in April and May.    

Germany, Europe's biggest economy and paymaster, holds legislative elections in September.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is widely forecast to reach the runoff in the French vote, while the party of firebrand anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders is expected to perform strongly in the Dutch race.  

Merkel, meanwhile, is facing pressure from the hard-right populist party Alternative for Germany.

Trump's nationalism and expressed scepticism about NATO has also stirred concerns in Brussels. On January 31st, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, listed the Trump administration as a “threat” facing the bloc, along with China, Russia and radical Islam.

By Michel Moutot and Herve Asquin / AFP

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BRITS IN EUROPE

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.

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